2024 Trends In Packaging: Sustainability

Packaging designs change a lot. They evolve from one version to another, and the field of packaging design evolves continuously year after year. For a third year now, we’d like to reflect on past packaging trends and make our predictions for the packaging trends of the future.

Like last year, we saw similarities from one year to the next, even if changes emerged in those trends. Nothing makes that “the same but different” effect more clear than the importance of sustainability. For three years now, we’ve talked about the trend towards sustainability, and this year is no different. What makes this year different, however, is more—more consumers are demanding more options, more businesses are investing in sustainable solutions, and more states are demanding more change.

For that reason, we wanted to start this year’s Trends In Packaging series with a breakdown of 2024’s biggest trend: sustainability.

Increasing Compostables and Access to Composters

Compostable packaging was in the news a lot in 2023. There were articles about the difficulty of making commercially compostable packaging, efforts to update the definition of compostable feedstock to align with modern day realities, and surveys about Americans’ preference for compostable packaging over recyclable packaging.

With so much public attention being paid to compostable packaging, it’s no surprise that we expect this to be one of the biggest packaging trends of 2024. We expect to see greater access to commercial composting facilities, more commercially compostable packaging on the market, more laws and regulations governing commercially compostable products, and more consumers using and properly disposing of commercially compostable products.

At the same time, there are definite issues in the commercial composting landscape that need to be worked out. Many consumers don’t know what to do with compostable packaging or lack access to a composting facility and end up throwing it away in the landfill. Meanwhile, states are passing laws and regulations that add layers of complexity to compostable packaging. In the end, it’s crucial to have a packaging partner that understands these issues and how they impact, or could impact, your brand’s sustainability initiatives.

Saying No to Plastics

One trend we expect to see continued from previous years is that consumers will continue to ask for alternatives to plastic.

Globally, consumers feel like plastic is the least sustainable material, according to a survey on the future of packaging and sustainability. Most respondents (56.4%) also said they are reducing their plastic usage to live more sustainably. In fact, reducing plastic use was the most cited step respondents were doing to be more sustainable.

So, if consumers don’t want to use plastic what should a brand use for its packaging? It’s not as easy as picking a substrate. All materials have their own environmental tradeoffs that have to be considered, and you should consider what recycling and composting resources you have in your community as well. Maybe your customers prefer the look and feel of paper or maybe they’ll like the story behind packaging made from recycled plastic. You’ll have to weigh these tradeoffs against each other yourself, but an experienced packaging partner (like us) can help you find the best solution for your business.

This is an area where consumer education really matters. According to Bain & Company’s Global Paper & Packaging Report, “many consumers still are confused about sustainability—that is what makes a product sustainable and what to do.” They incorrectly identify which products have a smaller impact on the environment and aren’t confident in their ability to create change. Brands should pair sustainable packaging with vigorous consumer education so that customers know how their purchase makes a difference and how to follow through on sustainable disposal.

Skepticism and Greenwashing Concerns

Here’s another reason why consumer education matters—and another one of our packaging trends: consumers are even more wary than before about brands’ sustainability claims.

You don’t have to go far to find consumers expressing skepticism and cynicism about virtually any company’s sustainability efforts. Any trip onto social media or comments sections will find people expressing doubts, asking pointed questions, or even just widely lambasting efforts to improve sustainability. While it can be disheartening to read or hear, it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate your sustainability bona fides.

If you’re reading a comment, odds are other followers are too. By answering the question or responding to the concern, you are taking an opportunity to put others’ fears to rest. You can explain how your product is sourced sustainably or is disposed of in a safe and environmentally friendly way. You can also demonstrate the proof that you have whether those are third-party certifications of compostability or laboratory tests showing that a product is made without the use of PFAS or other chemicals of concern. At Inno-Pak, we proudly display our BPI and CMA certifications on all our certified commercially compostable products, so consumers can see the proof right there on the packaging.

PFAS and Chemicals of Concern

None of these products contain any intentionally added PFAS.

Speaking of PFAS, this is a trend we’ve called out for a couple of years now, but expect to see fewer brands using packaging made with PFAS. States have not only begun to ban it, but PFAS has entered the public sphere and consumers expect their favorite brands to quit using packaging with intentionally-added PFAS.

To date, twelve states have enacted PFAS bans on food packaging, and more are considering doing so every day. The fines are stiff—in California, there are penalties of up to $6,000 per violation. Additionally, many retailers have made the wise decision to get ahead of the bans by removing intentionally-added PFAS from their packaging already.

We expect to see more states putting PFAS bans into place, so if you haven’t made the switch yet, you should. Ask your supplier if any of their packaging contains intentionally-added PFAS and ask them to provide proof of that claim.

Cost as a Barrier

One of the most persistent issues with transitioning to sustainable packaging is dealing with the increased costs that come with more sustainable products and knowing whether customers will pay for it. In 2024, we expect a lot of brands will be asking themselves this question, making it one of our trends in packaging.

Market research on this topic is pretty split. To provide a quick, high level overview, some customers say they would pay more for packaging but others say they won’t. There are many consumers who will buy a more sustainable product that is the same price or only a slightly higher price than a less sustainable product. However, the polls and studies show that customers have very different levels of tolerance for different price points—and it depends on the product they’re buying in the first place.

Knowing your customers is the key to knowing if they’re willing to pay a higher price for more sustainable products. A good packaging partner should be able to find you the right, cost-effective packaging for your business. A great packaging partner can help you understand why those investments in your business matter and how to best communicate them to your own customer base.

We encourage you to view sustainable packaging (and really all packaging) not as a cost but as an investment. Your packaging sets the tone for your business and is an extension of your brand. If sustainability is a core part of your brand identity, then what message does it send to use less sustainable packaging? If nothing else, investing in sustainability will help you win over customers who feel strongly about sustainability and tip the scales in your favor with customers who are choosing between you and one of your competitors.

Confusing Legislation

Last year, the sheer number of bills and regulations affecting food packaging—from PFAS to composting—was truly head spinning. 2024 will only get worse. We expect to see more states:

  • Banning PFAS in packaging
  • Banning other chemicals of concern
  • Considering composting regulations
  • Setting recycled materials usage requirements
  • Changing recycling policies
  • Implementing extended producer responsibility rules
  • And much more

These bills will add fresh confusion to an already confusing patchwork of laws and regulations at the local, state, and national level. Whoever you partner with for packaging should be able to work with you to understand and comply with the regulations and laws that affect your business.

How to Make the Most of this Trend

For some consumers, sustainability is one of the most important considerations they have when they purchase something. For others, it’s not a factor. For most, it’s solidly in the mix of factors they’re weighing when they decide how they want to spend their hard-earned money.

If you’re looking to grow your sustainable sales, we can help provide you with the packaging—and the certifications—that’ll help you win customers and overcome doubts. Be sure to check out our Stalk Market Compostable Products and Planet+ catalog. In it, you’ll find commercially compostable:

  • Takeout cartons
  • Plates and bowls
  • Hinged containers
  • Forks, knives, and spoons
  • Hot and cold cups
  • Clear PLA containers
  • Bags and liners

If sustainability is important to you, your business, and your customers, then make sure you have a packaging partner that reflects those values. At Inno-Pak, we’re committed to helping you effect positive change by creating innovative, sustainable packaging solutions. We work to continuously evolve and innovate the design of food packaging to maximize its end-of-life benefits while minimizing its effects on the planet. Please contact us if you’re ready to explore your options.